on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Associated Press, September 2, 2004

Family planning groups: Bush has undermined women's health worldwide

DATELINE: LONDON -- U.S. President George W. Bush is undermining women's reproductive rights and health around the world with policies that have caused thousands of unwanted pregnancies, unnecessary deaths and HIV infections, delegates at a conference on population and development charged Thursday.

The representatives delivered a scathing attack on the Bush administration's promotion of abstinence over condoms for AIDS prevention and its withdrawal of funding from the United Nations Population Fund and groups around the world that provide abortions or abortion counseling.

Such policies, they said, have made the United States an impediment rather than a force for progress on improving reproductive health and are putting millions of women's lives at risk.

"We were once a beacon of hope," said Tim Wirth, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado and now president of the United Nations Foundation, a group that funds U.N. causes.

"To watch this erode so dramatically in the last few years where the United States is now part of what one of our colleagues has called the axis of bigotry, ... it's just extraordinary to me," he said. "We used to be such a force for good, and we have now become this reactionary force around the world."

Wirth - whose wife Wren is a close friend of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's wife Teresa Heinz Kerry - was an undersecretary of state under former U.S. President Bill Clinton and led the American delegation to the 1994 United Nations summit in Cairo on slowing world population growth.

Advocates who gathered in London this week to evaluate progress toward the Cairo meeting's 20-year goals said much had been accomplished. But far more money is needed if targets on reducing deaths in pregnancy and childbirth, improving sexual health and slowing population growth are to be met.

The Cairo summit won a surprising consensus for its demand of equality for women, including through access to birth control. It argued that boosting education, health care and economic opportunities for women would slow population growth.

The London gathering, organized by the International Planned Parenthood Federation and other advocacy groups and supported by the U.N. Population Fund, said that although the world's population has grown from 5.6 billion to 6.4 billion since 1994, the rate of increase has slowed considerably.

But with half the world's people under 25, the growth rate is still high, the meeting said.

While the Cairo conference called on governments to spend US$17 billion a year by 2000 toward its goals, only US$9.6 billion was spent in 2001, the London meeting said.

AIDS and HIV pose a far greater danger now than they did 10 years ago, but rich countries' contributions to fight the disease's spread was US$1.8 billion last year, far less than the US$10 billion needed, the conference said.

And while between 75 percent and 84 percent of couples in industrialized countries use modern forms of birth control, only 10 percent of couples in sub-Saharan Africa do, it said. It added that 201 million women around the world lack access to safe contraception.

Steven Sinding, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said Bush had made progress far more difficult.

"In a reversal of its historic role, my own country (the United States) has emerged as one of the most significant obstacles to progress," he said. "The current administration has no compunction about bending scientific fact and hard evidence to suit its own ideology."

Since 2002, the U.S. government has blocked US$34 million in annual support to the U.N. Population Fund, saying it contributes to coerced abortions in China, a charge that the agency has long denied.

The U.N. Population Fund has insisted it could have used the U.S. funding to prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies and nearly 800,000 abortions.

Two days after taking office in 2001, Bush reinstated a policy that denies U.S. overseas aid to nonprofit groups that perform abortions or provide abortion counseling.

<< Associated Press -- 9/2/04 >>

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